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School Colors

September 17, 2008

Yellowjackets educates--and confuses--audiences about racial tensions at Berkeley High.

High schools in the United States don't often serve as settings for plays. But if any high school in America deserves to have a drama written about it, it's Berkeley High. A sprawling institution boasting a student body of close to 3,500, it has made headlines over the decades for everything from being the first school in the U.S. to voluntarily desegregate in 1968 to electing, in 1971, a gay male as homecoming queen.

The school is the subject of a new play at Berkeley Rep by the Brooklyn-based dramatist and Berkeley High alumnus Itamar Moses. Set in 1994, when the now-31-year-old playwright was a student at the school, Yellowjackets explores how a bunch of teenagers attempts to cope with a rash of unsettling upheavals that threaten to rupture school life. When a fight breaks out between rival gangs, Berkeley High's leaders decide to install a closed campus policy. Tension grows in tandem with students' heightened sense of being trapped. Random, unprovoked altercations escalate across campus; the school newspaper comes under attack for running a racially incendiary article; disagreements over plans to abolish the school's tracking program (whereby students are divided into classes according to academic ability) on socioeconomic grounds further hamper the pupils' ability to concentrate on their schoolwork. The more the students try to make sense of their circumstances, the more senseless their situation seems.

In some ways, Yellowjackets, which takes its title from Berkeley High's mascot, is an unusual achievement. Though plays like David Mamet's Oleanna, Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter, and Patrick Shanley's Doubt touch upon various aspects of this country's education system, most dramas that deal directly with high school politics stay firmly within institutional walls. Contrastingly and defiantly, Yellowjackets dramatizes a theme most would consider more suitable for a high school conflict resolution or cultural awareness workshop than a major public theater. Yet despite the play's potential to raise public awareness about key issues surrounding race within Bay Area schools and the community at large, Yellowjackets ultimately fails to make headlines like the playwright's alma mater once did.

Over the course of two and a half hours, we get to know and empathize with a host of contrasting characters, thanks to Moses' wide-ranging ear for dialogue; the whiplash, MTV-paced movement of director Tony Taccone's mise-en-scène; and the energy of the young, mostly Bay Area–based ensemble cast. Characters constantly defy such stereotypical labels as "troublemaker," "nerd," and "stoner." Damian, played by a loose-limbed, likable Shoresh Alaudini, stands accused of breaking a teacher's arm, but soon reveals a softer, more vulnerable side. Amaya Alonso Hallifax's Alexa struggles to reconcile her journalistic integrity as the school newspaper's photo editor with a teacher's demands for more Latino coverage in the publication. Meanwhile, Ben Freeman's Avi feels the weight of thousands of years of Jewish persecution grow only heavier in the face of accusations of racism by nonwhite groups.

The play may not possess the linguistic and structural dazzle of Bach at Leipzig, Moses' breakout off-Broadway hit of 2005. But like that fugue-inspired work, Yellowjackets has an internal music all its own. With its interweaving plots, varied colors, and recapitulated, sometimes wildly transposed themes, Yellowjackets is reminiscent of jazz. In keeping with the drama's bebop feel and Moses' predilection for creating theatrical polyphony by presenting multiple viewpoints, Taccone often balances a major conversation center stage with something on the periphery. Whether it's a couple of teens sprawled on the ground making out while others discuss serious personal issues, or two students changing their shirts in the locker room while another breaks down in front of a teacher about being bullied, Taccone interrogates many of the play's major statements with a small but pertinent visual question mark.

Moses' innate ability to introduce and counterbalance many different viewpoints, like a magician spinning myriad plates, gives the play credibility beyond a pedagogical setting. "My job, a lot of the time, is to argue with myself all the way to an uncomfortable silence," he has said. In the case of Yellowjackets, the discomfort is as palpable and the silence is roaring, because the playwright offers no easy answers to the problems set out in the drama, only tough questions.

Yet for all of Yellowjackets' inspiring qualities, I found it hard to connect with the play. If Moses had made stronger links between the turmoil inside his alma mater and the school's conflicted external reputation, he might have bridged the divide separating the insular world of Berkeley High and the wider theater audience — many of whom, including myself, have never attended high school in Berkeley. Moses unfortunately never puts the school in a broader sociological context. The play makes an isolated reference to Avi as being "a white kid in a brown school," but beyond that it fails to explore a major Bay Area paradox of which Berkeley High is emblematic: While many of our region's cities are gentrifying, public schools here are suffering from white flight.

Still, by opening up discussions about school politics beyond the confines of the schoolyard, the play doubtless performs a vital community service. Berkeley Rep estimates the show will reach nearly 2,500 teens through performances and workshops. I'm glad the play received a production on a major professional stage. Companies around the country should consider making it part of their education mandate, though I wouldn't be surprised if the play goes on to become more ubiquitous on school curricula than in theater company season brochures. But whether young audiences experience Yellowjackets at school or in the theater, the most important thing is for them to see this show. Even if Yellowjackets failed to grip this particular critic today, it still may have the power to change the way tomorrow's grownups think and behave.



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